Review: Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

25255576It’s the beginning of the summer in a small town in Ireland. Emma O’Donovan is eighteen years old, beautiful, happy, confident. One night, there’s a party. Everyone is there. All eyes are on Emma. The next morning, she wakes on the front porch of her house. She can’t remember what happened, she doesn’t know how she got there. She doesn’t know why she’s in pain. But everyone else does. Photographs taken at the party show, in explicit detail, what happened to Emma that night. But sometimes people don’t want to believe what is right in front of them, especially when the truth concerns the town’s heroes…

I read this book in one sitting. Then it took a while for the dust to settle before I could compose my thoughts and share them with you. Other bloggers have said that this is a book that everyone should read, and I can’t help but agree. Here are my reasons why:

Not an ‘easy’ read

Compelling, yes, and written in an engaging tone, yes – but easy to read? No. There were times when I had to put it down for a moment to compose myself because it was just so vivid and sad and real. But then I had to go back to it and carry on. When an author does that  – when they challenge you, make you think, make you question your responses to the situation they are presenting to you, make you physically not be able to turn away from the harrowing nature of things – that is a pretty intense reading experience. And it’s a rare talent that can achieve it.

Not a likable narrator

Now let’s just be clear about this: Emma O’Donovan, or ‘Easy Emma’, as she is branded in the aftermath of the assault, really doesn’t come across as a nice person. She’s obsessed with being the prettiest and doesn’t care how she proves it – whether it’s by putting her best friends down or coming on to their boyfriends and crushes. She’s bitter, too – she doesn’t think twice about stealing a bottle of Chanel perfume from her friend Ali, whom she resents for being richer than her. They are all signs of someone who is very vulnerable deep down, but nevertheless it doesn’t make you warm to her. This ‘unlikability’ is pivotal to the novel. Because she was drunk and dressed provocatively on the night of the rape, people say that she was ‘asking for it’. As if she somehow deserved it. She is shamed, called a slut, bitch, whore. People who used to admire her (and secretly always resented and envied her) turn against her and she is left friendless, isolated, alone. And no one believes her. She isn’t a victim: she is to blame. Would people have reacted differently had the rape happened to a nice girl, who dressed and behaved ‘appropriately’ and always treated others with kindness? Or maybe it wouldn’t happen to a ‘nice’ girl, because she wouldn’t have ‘deserved it’? The point is that no one, not ANY ONE ‘deserves’ to be raped. Not even if they’re a bit of a bitch. And it can, and does, happen to anyone. The fact that Emma is hard for the reader to like or connect with means that the sense of moral outrage at what happens to her is pure and untempered by an emotional attachment – you’re not upset and angry because a character you love has been hurt or wronged, you are upset and angry because what has happened to her is just. Plain. Wrong. The sense of injustice becomes bigger than the characters and the book. It takes on a life of its own and stays with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

Not pulling any punches

In a similar vein to O’Neill’s debut novel, Only Ever Yours, there is no redemption or resolution here. She paints a very bleak picture and doesn’t make any compromises or give us any answers. There is only one glimmer of hope: Emma’s brother Bryan, who stands beside her through it all. But he alone cannot hold back the tide. Of course it would have been more life-affirming to read about how Emma’s attackers got their comeuppance and she went on to get over her trauma through therapy and somehow put it all behind her. But that wouldn’t, as O’Neill herself has said, have been true to this narrative, and neither is it true to reality, if the statistics that Emma reads about in the paper are accurate: the rate of conviction for rape in Ireland is only 1%.

Not talking about it

The whole town turns against Emma. The four boys involved in the gang-rape are players on the football team, the town’s heroes (‘They’re good boys really’) and she is ruining their lives. Really, for Emma to stand a chance of getting over the trauma would take the support of every single person in that ‘tight-knit community’. But no one will talk to her. Some of Emma’s friends do try to reach out to her, but she is incapable of communicating to them what she is going through. Though they don’t directly admit it, her own parents are ashamed of her. This was the worst and saddest part of the story for me. You really want them to stand by their daughter and say they will support her no matter what, but they don’t. They would rather not talk about it and just want it all to go away. Even Emma can’t bring herself to say ‘that word’. But as O’Neill writes in her afterword, not talking about it is precisely the problem: ‘We need to talk about rape. We need to talk about consent. We need to talk about victim-blaming and slut-shaming and the double standards we place upon our young men and women. We need to talk and talk and talk until the Emmas of this world feel supported and understood. Until they feel like they are believed.’

#NotAskingForIt

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